It’s fairly common for parents whose child has died to have someone tell them how strong they are. I think that perception comes from the fact that we are able to bury our children and still function. People see us greeting memorial or funeral attendees and wonder how we can stand up there and actually do that. They think we must be so strong. Initially, I think our instinct to behave as we have in the past takes over. We are numb, and so we instinctually try to act or react, at least for a little while, as we would have before our child died. It’s sort of like muscle memory.
Muscle memory is a term that means our muscles “remember” how to do something. It’s procedural memory, meaning we have repeated a procedure until our muscles automatically complete the task. For example, last May we went on vacation to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. One of the best ways to get around the island is by bicycle. Although we used to ride bikes a lot when I was a kid, I hadn’t been on a bicycle in nearly 40 years. I was nervous about riding a bike again after all those years, but I got on and rode as if I had never missed riding all those years. My body – my muscles – remembered how to ride a bike.
Muscle memory applies to a lot of activities we do – typing, skiing, writing, playing video games, playing an instrument, even walking. We don’t necessarily have to think about these activities, we just do them. I think it’s very interesting that Alzheimer’s patients may not even remember that they were musicians, but can sit down and play the piano or some other instrument.
At first, that’s what bereaved parents do. We try to act according to our previous patterns. We can’t keep doing that, because nothing is the same, but I think that’s how we start out.
I tend to organize and plan things. I’m not as organized as some people, but I spent years organizing homeschool field trips, classes, school schedules, etc. So, when Jason died, my instinct was to take the steps necessary to do what needed to be done. Honestly, I don’t know how I did it.
I went home and started calling people. Who else was going to call them? I had called Eric from the accident site, making sure he had someone else who drive him to our house. I called my sister. I called my mom. I called some of Jason’s friends. I called church people I thought of as extended family. I answered the phone when one of Jason’s tutoring students called and had to tell him Jason had died. I hugged and comforted people who came by the house. I ran to tightly hug Joe or Jenna when they collapsed and sobbed uncontrollably. They did the same for me. The rest of that day was mostly a blur. I was a mess. I had such horrible headache from crying. The next day, though, there were things we needed to do.
It’s strange. Think about planning an event – a party or wedding – and how much time and effort goes into such an event. Weeks, months of planning. Bereaved parents have only a few days to plan their child’s funeral or memorial service.
There is so much to do and so many decisions to make after a child dies. Choosing a place to bury your child. Choosing a casket. Choosing a headstone and what to put on it. Flowers. Visitation or no visititation. Open or closed casket. Funeral or memorial service. Private family graveside service, or open attendance memorial or funeral. Location, date, time of service. Officiant. Music to be played before and during the service. Asking people to participate in speaking or playing an instrument or singing. Choosing photographs for the video montage and music to accompany it. Picking out photographs or memorabilia to display at the service. Picking out what your child should wear. Picking out what you will wear. Trying to figure out where out of town guests would stay and who would get them from the airport. Talking to the officiant to plan the order of service. Deciding which newspapers to put notices in and what to say in the notices. On and on it goes. It’s overwhelming. We had a private graveside service and a open attendance memorial, so we had to plan two events. We made all of these decisions in a matter of a day or two. We had help with some things, but most of the plans and decisions were only ours to make. It’s just crazy for me to think about, even now.
While we were doing all of this, Alina’s parents were doing the same thing. After we made all of our plans, we found out (without any prior knowledge for any of us) that we had chosen the exact same casket as Alina’s family and a burial plot one space away from where Alina would be buried. The odd thing to me – and it has always seemed so odd – is that a person named Henderson is buried between them, and Jesse Henderson (don’t know if any relation) is the person who killed Jason and Alina.
Were we strong or were we just acting on instinct? Perhaps some of each.
I recently read a post on Mother’s Day that talked about how brave mothers are who have lost a child. I’ve never thought of myself as strong or brave. I see myself as broken. I shattered when Jason died, and I feel like I still have so many pieces missing. I’m still such a mess sometimes. I struggle and have lots of scars from Jason’s death and all that happened afterward. But that post started me thinking of the paths bereaved parents journey after their child dies and some of the situations we encounter that are unique to our journey, and I just have to say that I have changed my mind. Bereaved parents: We ARE brave. We ARE strong. We ARE courageous.
We bury our children and keep on going. We try to find a reason to keep on living. We go back to school. We go back to work. We have to learn how to help others deal with our loss when we don’t even know how to help ourselves. We comfort others when we are are the ones in desperate need of comfort and understanding. We educate ourselves on the process of grieving. At times, we have to put on a mask to hide our grief or find ways to make our grief palatable to those around us. We deal with friends who disappear, either initially or after a while when we don’t “recover” quickly enough for their comfort. We endure people telling us what to do and how we should grieve when they have no idea what they’re talking about. We deal with the hurt when people pretend they don’t see us and choose a getaway down another grocery aisle. We forgive those who hurt us even when no one has asked forgiveness. We have to figure out how to find a new normal. We keep working on rebuilding our lives. We take care of our remaining families.
We deal with people judging us for how we grieve. We deal with people telling us we should “move on” or giving us a time limit of when “we should be over it.” We make allowances for inconsiderate people who don’t understand what it’s like to lose a child. We rejoice at the weddings or graduations of others, knowing our children will never have the same opportunities. We find ways to honor the memory of our children. We make new traditions for holidays while embracing memories of ones gone by. We write and speak and try to educate people on how to help others whose children have died. We live our lives, day in and day out, with broken hearts and a burden of grief we hope no one else will ever have to carry. We cry until we can’t cry any more, and then dry our tears to start a new day. We have walked such difficult paths when it seems others have walked easier ones. We may not do it perfectly, but we keep on going. We deal with so many hard things, but keep on trying. We get knocked down and get back up. We live. We love.
I would just like to say bravo to all of you bereaved parents out there. Most people don’t have to do what we have had to do. Keep trying. Keep walking. Keep writing. Keep speaking about your children and your love for them.
Hugs to each of you,
© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney